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Welcome to the Post-Reality Age

West Texas Wahabbism

by WERTHER

Cultural savants have been vague in ascribing a starting point to the Post-Modern Age. Some date the end of industrial modes of thinking and the dawn of television-saturated consciousness with the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media in 1964; others place the epiphany earlier or later in the twentieth century. Four decades after McLuhan’s book, Chuck Spinney, Pentagon reformer and author of Defense Facts of Life, was evidently so disgusted with the infantile spectacle of Post-Modernism that he began sarcastically referring to the contemporary Zeitgeist as the Post-Information Age. Yet even that formulation has been left in the dust by events: the medicine show that is the American scene has ushered us into an even more bizarre period: the Post-Reality Age.

Journalist Ronald Suskind introduces us to this concept in his recent article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. [1] In his chatty tour d’horizon of the President’s philosophy and management style, Suskind recounts an interview with a "senior White House advisor:"

" . . . then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

"The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality ­ judiciously, as you will ­ we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’"

It is really a pity that Suskind does not identify this West Wing Nietzsche. The author is hardly protecting a source, since the aide is depicted as supporting, rather than criticizing, his employer. In any case, Suskind has hardly left any bridges unburned with the White House, so he cannot be ensuring future journalistic access to a Bush White House. The uncertain identity of the source leads to the question: is it genuine?

There is certainly no question that Suskind has put on the record many sources, both Democrat and Republican, with unflattering and controversial statements about the administration. Under those circumstances, it is somewhat less likely that he fabricated a quote just for dramatic effect. And several other accounts, neutral and even favorable, confirm the general mindset of the administration and its chief executive as Suskind describes it.
For his first book on the current administration, Bush at War, Bob Woodward received assiduous cooperation from the White House and favorable reviews from the same quarter – it was only his second book, Plan of Attack, which incurred the wrath of Oval Office. Yet Bush at War contained the following Presidential quotes, which somehow escaped notice at the time of publication:

"I’m the commander-see, I don’t need to explain-I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

That is an interesting take on the accountability of the chief executive under the Constitution, to be sure. And the President offered Woodward the following strategic insight, so redolent of neoconservative influence, about Afghanistan:

"Look, our strategy is to create chaos, to create a vacuum."

Finally, Woodward recounted a statement from the President that is hard to reconcile with Compassionate Conservatism:

"We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation." [2]

A reading of Woodward by no means exhausts the available quotes. There is an article in the Israeli daily Haaretz which describes what the President allegedly told Palestinian Prime Minister Mamoud Abbas regarding an Israeli-Palestinian cease fire:

"According to Abbas, immediately thereafter Bush said: ‘God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them.’" [3]

Even presumed acolyte Richard Perle damned his patron with faint praise when he told journalist Sam Tanenhaus in the July 2003 Vanity Fair:

"The first time I met Bush 43, I knew he was different . . . one, he didn’t know very much. The other was that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn’t know very much."

Neoconservative David Frum, former speech writer for the President (and later co-author with Perle of a book with the significant title, An End to Evil), offers this curious assessment of his former boss ­ clearly an odd way to show gratitude to a former employer ­ in The Right Man:

". . . often uncurious and as a result ill informed . . . ."

One could pile on quotes ad libitum, but their general tendency is not at variance with Suskind’s article. The combined effect explains better than orthodox political ideas, economic theories, or military strategies, the contemporary world we confront. For instance, a non-reality based paradigm explains the following:

* How an effort to avenge the September 11 attacks got diverted into a feckless occupation of Iraq, a country that had less to do with 9/11 than, say, Hamburg, Germany (where much of the 9/11 plot was apparently hatched)[4] – or Hollywood, Florida (where several of those the U.S. government identifies as the conspirators lived). [5]

* How Afghanistan remains a warlord-infested chaos beyond the environs of Kabul, while al-Qaeda regroups along the border with Pakistan: the U.S. government’s objective all along was "to create chaos, to create a vacuum."

* How 40 percent of Americans (and 63 percent of Republicans) still believe Saddam was linked to 9/11: they obviously eschew the judicious study of "discernible reality" in favor of "reality TV."

* How the first administration since Herbert Clark Hoover to see a net loss of jobs during its tenure can trumpet that its economic policies are working.

* How a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion which turned into a projected deficit of $3.3 trillion – an $8.9 trillion reversal – is considered a paragon of prudent fiscal management.

One can multiply examples of this kind almost without limit. It must be refreshing to be unconstrained by discernible reality. Sooner or later, one ends up talking like faithful Party member O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984, in a passage that sounds eerily like the words of Suskind’s senior White House advisor:

"We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation – anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of these nineteenth century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature."

It used to be comforting to believe that 1984 was considered fiction.

* WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

[1] "Without A Doubt" by Ron Suskind, The New York Times Magazine, 17 October 2004.

[2] The neoconservative impulse to create chaos, vacuums, and destruction reaches an apotheosis of sorts in neocon panjandrum Michael Ledeen. This Garment-District Goebbels wrote in his book Machiavelli on Modern Leadership on the need for "total war" through "creative violence." There is no such thing as peace between nations, he claims; peace is just an interval between wars.

[2] "’Road Map is a Life Saver for Us,’ PM Abbas Tells Hamas," Haaretz, 24 June 2003. While this quote has been reproduced countless times on the Internet, no one has as yet commented on its strange enumeration of Godly powers: The Almighty is content to manifest His will in military invasions, but not in the quadrennial circus of U.S. elections. So much for the belief in vox populi, vox dei.

[4] Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, page 160.

[5] Ibid., page 528 (Notes to Chapter 7).